Model talent – Kate Kelly reflects on a 21-year career with Wexford
Four All-Irelands and 9 All Stars bear testimony to one of the great camogie careers
Kate Kelly: A veritable giant has left the pitch but not the game. She was a player who looked small but always, always, pulled big. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
When Wexford played Offaly last Saturday Kate Kelly joined the supporters on the pitch afterwards to partake in that most glorious of GAA rituals: the championship post-mortem.
For the first time in 21 years her role was reduced to spectator.
She watched them win their camogie championship opener with her husband Chris Gordon from a high, quiet spot in the stand; happiest, as always, to stay in the shadows.
But, just as it did when she played, the limelight still found her.
Her post-match natter was constantly interrupted by supporters and friends, all stepping over to touch her shoulder and say ‘Thanks Kate!’
Messages of admiration and gratitude, from friend and foe alike, have kept coming since her recent retirement announcement and she’s been chuffed and mortified in equal measure.
RTÉ’s Jacqui Hurley paid her the ultimate compliment, tweeting: ‘If Henry was King @katekelly05 was the Queen. 21 years of service, 4 All-Irelands & 9 All Stars. A magician on the field.’
Kelly’s beautiful touch, tireless engine and metronomic free-taking made camogie look so effortless that it’s hard to remember just how far Wexford, and the game, has come.
Her mum Peggie Doyle and her sister Mary were part of a generation of groundbreaking Wexford camogs who dethroned Dublin and won breakthrough All-Irelands in 1968 and ’69.
Even on the cusp of the 1970s they were still playing in long tunics and black tights, with no TV coverage to showcase them or foreign holidays to reward them.
When Kelly herself first emerged the game was still 12 a-side with smaller goals and helmets an optional extra.
She was a prodigy; winning an All-Ireland minor in 1995 when that grade was U16 and making her senior championship debut off the bench a year later.
Wexford had lost three All-Irelands in 1990, 1992 and 1994 and she was part of the first of several waves of talent who rolled back the years with their own breakthrough All-Ireland in 2007 and then that three-in-a-row of 2010-2012.
Yet those highs obscure a lot of earlier lows.
Herself and sister Mag were both starters when Cork came to Oylegate in 1999 and annihilated them by 43 points (7-24 to 0-2). In 2002 Tipp beat them by 26 points in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
“I remember Cork beating us in Páirc Uí Rinn by 23 points and two years later they came up and beat us by 32!
“Those days stick out but they never actually made me think we’ll never win an All-Ireland. Maybe when you’re younger you’re just not as affected,” she grins.
Her parents and the club –St Ibar’s/Shelmalier – were the seminal influences.
She’s the fourth eldest in a family of nine and the oldest girl. They had an idyllic childhood on a farm in Screen within a long puck of Curracloe beach and all but one of them is still playing.
“From the time we were born we played. Our parents just live and breathe it. When there’d be silage season, you’d get the dinner and come out to the yard and there’d be a big game before going back to work.”
Her stories are legion and come with an irrepressible twinkle.
John Furlong, their underage club coach, led them to an All-Ireland Féile (under-14) final in1994 and Pebbles, their giant red teddy mascot, went too.
John gave everyone of them a nickname and his back-pocket was also crammed with catch-phrases that still crease them up.
When they once fearfully scanned opponents who towered over them he simply exhorted ‘Look small, pull big!’ and it became their motto.
They were “little tearaway” she laughs. Herself and her mate Emma Carroll and clubmates like Claire O’Connor, Michelle O’Leary and Aine Codd would also progress to county senior.
Willie Carley managed them for three years before Stellah Sinnott led them to 2007 glory and then JJ Doyle helped win the three in-a-row. JJ’s team-bonding famously included a day of “bog-hopping up in Laois” but Willie was at it before him.
“Willie got us up at three in the morning once, for the Dawn Chorus down in Curracloe. He ended up being late himself so we missed it,” she chuckles. “And then he said to us ‘sure ye were talking so much how could ye hear it?’
“We were knocking on the door, got within a crossbar of getting to Croke Park one year against Tipp (2005), and then Stellah came in and just upped the ante.”
The real turning point? Finally beating Cork.
They lost to them by a point in the 2007 league final but, a week later, in the championship down in Ballincollig, beat them by 10 points and never looked back.
Kelly was also a dual star who, in her teens, contested three and won two All-Ireland club senior titles with Shels’ in 1996-99.
In 2007, two weeks after the camogie final, she also contested an All-Ireland intermediate football final with Wexford.
But camogie was her first love and her career included two Ashbournes with WIT where she now works, commuting from her home in Curracloe.
Wexford’s hurling Riverdance in 1996 reignited the county’s fire and when their women kept it lit they were feted appropriately and now train alongside the men at the county’s Centre of Excellence in Ferns.
There’s food afterwards, though still not hot food like the men get, but Kelly, a founding member and treasurer of the WGPA, is a pragmatist.
“The standard of player treatment has improved no end in the last 10 years. You’d just like to get it to a point where there’s more people going to our games and more money coming in so you can look after players even better but, getting more people to games, that’s the million dollar question isn’t it?”
She believes camogie referees aren’t consistent enough and should flash more yellow and red cards “especially at club level. Sometimes I wonder if they’re being too nice, thinking the women don’t mean it!”
Ironically, for a 37-year-old who still has the physique and endurance of a greyhound, she broke her first bone (in her hand) recently, forcing her to miss Shels’ championship opener last Monday but that won’t stop her club gallop.
All last year, everytime she left for a match, she told Gary ‘this could be my last game for Wexford’.
“Camogie takes over more and more of your everyday conscious living now,” she says.”The time was right to go.”
She still scored 0-8 in each of her last two games and was the 2016 championship’s top scorer on 5-49, taking her championship career total to 27 goals and 315 points.
She was also, at 36, nominated for camogie’s Player of the Year (which she won in 2007) and left with a record-equalling ninth All Star.
So what was it like, watching from the wrong side of the fence now?
“It was okay!” she smiles. “My mind is made up. Maybe if it had been a different game I’d have been ‘Jesus I want to get down there’ but they got a brilliant start and won it well, I’m delighted for the younger players, they need that bit of confidence.”
And, 21 years later, what advice would she have given her 16-year-old self?
“I’d say do what you love doing and do it with everything you have. That’s what we did. We loved playing and went at it like lunatics. We never held back!”
A veritable giant has left the pitch but not the game. She was a player who looked small but always, always, pulled big.